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History And The Forms Of Capital Punishment In The US

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Maintaining a moral and civilized society often comes with many struggles, one of which being the decision on how to deal with the punishment of criminals. All throughout history the different attempts at regulation of crime can be seen, because all that any society wants is to just protect its people and ensure justice. One pivotal example of this is capital punishment, better known as the death penalty. Capital punishment is when a person is executed for crimes they have committed, depending on the laws of where the person is. Countries all over the world have differing opinions on whether or not to use the death penalty based on its morality, among many other things. Capital punishment has caused a great divide among U.S citizens, particularly because of the argument that it may or may not violate the 8th Amendment, which protects Americans from cruel or unusual punishments from the government. It is the understanding of those who are against this that it is a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution and that the government cannot kill people for violating the law. Therefore, it is obvious that many people believe that the death penalty is both unconstitutional and a relevant and controversial issue in America today.

This controversy began in 18th century BC with the first ever recorded death penalty laws under the reign of King Hammurabi in Babylon (Reggio). This document was called “The Code of Hammurabi”, and it stated that a person could capital punishment for 25 crimes, but murder was not one of these crimes. Then, a man in 16th century BC Egypt was a accused of using magic, so he was ordered to commit suicide, and this was the first record of a person being sentenced the death penalty. As time went by more countries began to adopt this method of punishment, each one adding their own ‘flair’ to it. Some countries decided to burn people to death, some decided to add cutting the victim into 4 pieces after they are dead, and some even decided to add torture. For example, there was the famous philosopher Socrates who was made to drink poison in 399 BC, or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in 29 AD, and under the reign of Henry VIII there was around 72,000 put to death. The world became obsessed with the use of the death penalty.

This trend continued for years to come, and traveled with the Europeans to the New World when the time came. The first time capital punishment could be seen in the colonies was in the Jamestown colony of Virginia, 1608, when Captain George Kendall was hung under the assumption that he had committed treason (“Early”). Then later, in 1612, the Governor of Virginia, Sir Thomas Dale, created the Divine, Moral, and Marital Laws, which had very harsh punishments for very minor crimes (Reggio). As time progressed, the other colonies began to make their own laws regarding capital punishment, typically having it be the reprecussions for things like murder or treason, with hanging being the main form of execution until the 1890’s. But, in 1846, Michigan was the first state to abolish the death penalty, except in the case of treason against the state, and in 1852, Pennsylvania followed soon after. The states were noticing that hanging wasn’t the most reliable or humane form of execution, so when Thomas Edison was publicly showing how alternating current electricity, a dangerous form of electricity created by George Westinghouse, could be used to kill animals. They then decided that it would be a wonderful idea to use it on people. New York became the first state to use it in 1888, and it killed its first victim, William Kemmler in 1890, which took 8 excruciating minutes. Another one of the 5 forms of capital punishment in the U.S today is gas inhalation. Cyanide gas inhalation was first used in Nevada, 1924, on Tong war gang murderer Gee Jon. One other less common method is a firing squad, which is when 5 people shoot at one spot on a person, and only 4 of the 5 have live bullets. This method has only been used 4 times since the 1960’s (“Capital”). Finally, the fifth and most common method today are lethal injections. The victim would be given 3 injections, one to put them in a coma-like state, one to stop movement and breathing, and one to stop the beating of their heart (“Historical”).

The 5 different forms of capital punishment in the U.S today show the lack of morality that its users have. To kill others is immoral, this is a fact known by people all over the world. The pure hypocrisy of the death penalty is laughable. The idea that to kill is wrong, but it is okay when the government does it. It’s important to note that capital punishment is not even applied fairly to people of all races, mental capabilities and socioeconomic status (“Senator”). According to a study conducted in 2005, Black and Latino people are 3 to 4 times more likely to get the death penalty than any white person (Newsom). People who are also at a disadvantage in regards to the death penalty are the people who can’t afford the lawyers it would take to be protected in court (“Senator”). Senator Kamala Harris of California has stated herself that the death penalty is “a waste of taxpayer money.”.She is very much against the death penalty and believes it to be unfialy applied as well as an irreversible punishment that shouldn’t be used. The money that is used for capital punishment could be going to things that are much more helpful towards America, like schools or health care (“Senator”). It’s important to remember that the effects of the death penalty cannot be reversed, once a person has been killed, you can’t bring them back to life. The 8th Amendment is supposed to protect people from punishments that are cruel and unusual, and an irreversible punishment like death is something cruel that Americans shouldn’t have to be afraid of. 164 people who were wrongfully convicted and placed on death row have been released since 1973 (Newsom). Statistics hae shown that 45% of people preferred life imprisonment over the death penalty in 2014, but since then that number has increasd to 60% (Jones). Though in the past people tend to lean towards being for the death penalty, for the first time since 1989 people favor a life sentence over capital punishment.

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Although there is much to disagree with in regards to the death penalty, there are still reasons for its existence and constitutionality. In fact, 56% of people feel that, for convicted murderers, the death penalty is better than a life sentence (Jones). One reasoning is that people believe that by having capital punishment looming over people’s heads, it will help to reduce the amount of crime in the U.S (Schubert). But, this has been proven to be untrue, in fact, states without the death penalty have shown to have less crime than those that do (“Murder”). The current U.S president, Donald Trump, wishes for the death penalty to be stronger and he believes it to be an effective way to protect citizens (“President”). He also made a statement regarding this topic when speaking about 2 men who were sentenced to death for murdering 2 police officers, that the death penalty “may not be a deterrent but these 2 will not do anymore killing” (“President”). Though, yes, those murderers couldn’t commit any more crimes due to the fact that they are now dead, it does the same thing to them that they had done to the police officers, and the amount of crimes that they may have caused had they lived is not something that people can predict. It is understandable to want to protect others by getting rid of and killing those who kill or do other heinous crimes, but one must note how much unnecessary time and effort this consumes. California alone has spent 5 billion dollars on capital punishment, but they have only executed 13 people (Newsom).One could also argue that getting rid of the death penalty would show a lack of sympathy for the lives of victims, but it’s exactly the opposite. By not using capital punishment, a respect and appreciation for human life is shown, an acknowledgment that it’s not something to be taken lightly. Finally, the big argument that Capital punishment is in fact constitutional comes from the fact that the U.S Supreme Court has ruled that it is constitutional (“Gregg”). The Supreme Court has ruled that capital punishment is not in violation of the 8th Amendment, but killing one race more than another is cruel, sentencing innocent people to death due to ignorance is cruel, and murder, regardless of who is doing it, is cruel.

The debate on whether or not capital punishment is constitutional can be seen in the 2005 U.S Supreme Court case of Roper v. Simmons, but this case was only questioning whether its application towards minors was constitutional (“Roper”). In 1993, Christopher Simmons, a 17 year old in Missouri, planned to murder Shirley Nite Crook with Charles Benjamin and John Tessmer. They broke into her home, bound her, covered her eyes, and threw her over a bridge into a river (Associated). Christopher was given the death penalty, even though he was under 18, so he appealed, and when the Missouri Supreme Court heard his case they did not rule in his favor (“Roper”). They had tried to use the logic from Atkins v. Virginia that used public opinion to decide the constitutionality of something. He appealed again, and the U.S Supreme Court ruled 5 – 4 in favor of Simmons, the majority opinion being from Justice Anthony Kennedy, stating that executing minors violated the 8th Amendment and was unconstitutional. The precedent from this case was that from then on, minors could not receive the death penalty.

Another case that has to do with the constitutionality of capital punishment is the case of Penry v. Lynaugh case of 1989 (“Penry”). In October, 1979, Johnny Paul Penry broke into 22-year-old Pamela Moseley Carpenter’s Texas home, held a knife to her throat, raped her and fatally stabbed her with scissors. Penry was charged with capital murder and sentenced to death, even though he was moderately retarded and had the mental ability of a child around the age of 6. But, the jury wasn’t fully aware that they could take all of the special circumstances into consideration when making a decision, so Penry appealed. The question being asked was whether or not giving Penry the death penalty violated the 8th Amendment because he is mentally challenged and his jury wasn’t aware that they could take his circumstances into account. The lower courts did not rule in his favor, but the U.S Supreme Court ruled 5 – 4 in his favor, the majority from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, stating that the jury should have been told they could take his mental abilities into consideration, but being “retarded” doesn’t exempt one from the death penalty. The precedent set was that from then on, giving the death penalty to mentally retarded individuals was not a violation of the 8th Amendment.

In conclusion, the unconstitutionality and relevance of capital punishment is very apparent in the U.S today. It is clear that capital punishment is in violation of the 8th Amendment, which protects people from cruel and unusual punishments from the government, because it allows for racial bias and discrimination, it does basically nothing do deter crime, and it is, at its core, murder. Although the other side has understandable claims, there are better claims for arguing its unconstitutionality. Because there are so many differing ideas and opinions, it is very obviously a relevant and controversial topic today. Every person has a different take or view on it, even the president, and these differing opinions are what make a society better. It’s a matter of one listening to those around them and learning from them, to create a better, more moral society.

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History And The Forms Of Capital Punishment In The US. (2021, July 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 27, 2023, from
“History And The Forms Of Capital Punishment In The US.” Edubirdie, 19 Jul. 2021,
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History And The Forms Of Capital Punishment In The US [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Jul 19 [cited 2023 Sept 27]. Available from:
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